Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party has said he is stepping down and would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer after an embarrassing video of him was published by two German newspapers.
The far-right leader announced his resignation on Saturday, plunging the country into a political crisis days before the key European Union (EU) elections to be held from May 23 to 26.
“I tendered my resignation as vice-chancellor of Austria to Chancellor Kurz, and he accepted this decision,” Strache said in a televised statement.
“It was dumb, it was irresponsible and it was a mistake,” Strache later told a news conference, fighting back tears as he asked his wife and others to forgive him.
He maintained, however, that he had done nothing illegal.
In the hidden camera sting published on Friday, Strache was shown meeting a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece in 2017 and apparently offering to funnel state contracts towards a company in exchange for political and financial support.
Strache had come under a huge pressure to resign after German daily, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and the weekly, Der Spiegel, published footage of him apparently offering lucrative government contracts to the unnamed Russian woman if she were to buy an Austrian newspaper and support his party.
The newspapers said the hidden-camera recordings took place in a luxury villa on the island of Ibiza a few months before 2017’s parliamentary elections in Austria.
Both the newspapers that published the footage said they didn’t have any firm information over who set up the elaborate sting.
Strache has already admitted the meeting took place but denies any wrongdoing. He told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that “a lot of alcohol was consumed as the evening progressed” and that there was a “high language barrier” during the conversation.
The scandal has led to speculation about the future of Austria’s governing coalition between Strache’s anti-immigration Freedom Party and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party.
Chancellor Kurz is expected to make a statement later on Saturday as speculation swirled about whether the damage would be limited to Strache or if Kurz would call a snap election only a year and a half after the coalition was formed.
“I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behaviour to provide a pretext for the government to collapse,” Strache said at the press conference.Switzerland on collision course with EU over gun control